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Norman Mailer, self-titled king of the literary hill, dies at 84

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 11, 2007

Norman Mailer, the self-proclaimed heavyweight champion of postwar American letters, whose six decades in the public eye helped make him one of America's most acclaimed, controversial, and outrageous authors, died yesterday morning at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. The cause of death was kidney failure. He was 84.

Mr. Mailer's death brought an outpouring of remembrances from literary titans like Joan Didion ("He was a great American voice," she said through tears) to world leaders like President Nicolas Sarkozy of France ("It is a giant of American literature who has disappeared") to politicians like former New York mayor Ed Koch ("I count him as one of my many treasures in life").

"He could do anything he wanted to do - the movie business, writing, theater, politics," author Gay Talese said. "He never thought the boundaries were restricted. He'd go anywhere and try anything. He was a courageous person, a great person, fully confident, with a great sense of optimism."

Mr. Mailer was 25 when he published his first book, "The Naked and the Dead" (1948). Based on his experiences as a combat infantryman in the Philippines, the novel was a great literary and commercial success.

Mr. Mailer went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes: for "The Armies of the Night" (1968), a nonfiction account of a 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and "The Executioner's Song" (1979), which Mr. Mailer described as a "real life novel," about executed murderer Gary Gilmore.

An outsized persona

The key book among the dozens Mr. Mailer published - the one that did the most to create his outsized persona - was "Advertisements for Myself" (1959). An audacious gathering of fiction, journalism, essays, and interviews, it served as Mr. Mailer's announcement that he was king of the literary hill.

"I am imprisoned with a perception," he wrote, "that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." His writing, Mr. Mailer went on to say, "will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years."

What may be most striking about such bold claims wasn't Mr. Mailer's failure to achieve them, but rather that so many people seriously considered the possibility that he might live up to them - this despite the fact he then had just three novels to his name, and only "The Naked and the Dead" had been well regarded.

In a sense, Mr. Mailer was the chief advertisement for himself. No book stands out as his masterpiece. Many of his books, quickly written for money or attention or both, do not stand out at all. Or they do so for the wrong reasons. His 1983 novel, "Ancient Evenings," remains one of the great debacles in 20th-century literature. The most memorable character he created - and it was no small accomplishment - was himself. The novelist Gustave Flaubert remarked of his most celebrated creation, "Madame Bovary c'est moi " ("Madame Bovary is me"). Mr. Mailer could say the same thing about himself. "Norman Mailer" was Mr. Mailer's own most enduring creation: a roisterous, rebellious, shameless figure, at once seer and clown, man of letters and man of action, who sought in his writing to grab hold of very nearly all of contemporary American experience and make it his own.

When he published a collection of political journalism called "The Presidential Papers" (1963), it wasn't completely clear whether Mr. Mailer meant the title as a description of the contents or as a campaign declaration. The grandiosity of his ambitions extended that far beyond literature. Nor did Mr. Mailer's sense of self-importance diminish over time. In 1997, he published a novel about Jesus Christ, "The Gospel According to the Son," written in the first person. This year he published "The Castle in the Forest," a novel about Adolf Hitler narrated by the devil, and "On God: An Uncommon Conversation," dialogues about the deity.

"I was a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality, and status," Mr. Mailer wrote in "Advertisement." It was a condition he embraced. Late-night talk shows became his home away from home. He appeared as a presenter at the 1977 Academy Awards, acted in the movie version of "Ragtime," and played himself in a 2004 episode of the television series "Gilmore Girls."

"His career seems to be a brawl between his talent and his exhibitionism," the critic Anatole Broyard wrote in his New York Times review of Mr. Mailer's novel "Why Are We in Vietnam?" (1967) - another characteristically expansive title.

A personal, literary journey

Mr. Mailer's heyday was the 1960s. He was very much a transitional figure between the '50s, whose buttoned-down sensibility he strove mightily to subvert, and the turbulence of the '60s. The radical organizer Abbie Hoffman remembered seeing him give a speech at Brandeis in 1959, looking like "some tousle-haired Hebraic James Dean." Even as he recalled Dean, Mr. Mailer also looked ahead to Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali (he wrote two books about the fighter). He was their pop-cultural peer, although he was a generation older, as one of the decade's totemic personalities.

In his 1957 essay "The White Negro," Mr. Mailer lauded the hipster, a figure who would evolve into a '60s archetype: the noncomformist who flouts authority "to set out on the uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self."

With those words, Mr. Mailer could have been describing his own journey, both personal and literary. He was at once instigator, register, and recipient of the mad, transformative energy of the '60s. As the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1963, Mr. Mailer probed "modern society on a level deeper than that of political and economic determinism."

He was most in his element, perhaps, with all hell breaking loose, and that description fit the '60s. Between 1959 and 1973, Mr. Mailer published 19 books, made three "underground" movies, and ran for mayor of New York. (He finished fourth in a five-man field in the 1969 Democratic primary.)

During these years, Mr. Mailer was arguably the most important, presumably the most publicized, and certainly the most exciting writer in America. The brilliance and unconventionality of his reportage made him a founding father, along with Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, of the New Journalism. "Norman, I really think you are the best journalist in America," he recorded the poet Robert Lowell saying to him in "The Armies of the Night." Using Lowell's nickname, Mr. Mailer replied, "Well, Cal, there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America."

The great issues, themes, and events of the '60s drove Mr. Mailer's writing - writing that, in turn, helped define them. His essay "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" (1960) began the mythologizing of John F. Kennedy. His novel "An American Dream" (1965) reveled in sexual license and criminality. "Why Are We in Vietnam?" was about American excess and violence. "The Armies of the Night" dealt with the antiwar movement. "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" (1968) described the tumultuous '68 presidential campaign. "Of a Fire on the Moon" (1970) meditated on the first Apollo lunar landing. "The Prisoner of Sex" (1971) confronted feminism.

"Mailer does not have to try to keep up with the times," the novelist Wilfrid Sheed wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1968. "He cannot help it."

In "Armies of the Night," Mr. Mailer described his thought as a "private mixture of Marxism, conservatism, nihilism, and large parts of existentialism." The unruliness of Mr. Mailer's personal life - his six marriages, his loudly proclaimed indulgence in alcohol and drugs, the prominence of the words "orgy" and "orgasm" in his lexicon - makes it easy to overlook the importance of "conservatism" in that list.

Mr. Mailer had a near-Luddite abhorrence of technology (he was fond of saying that plastics "caused" cancer). He had serious misgivings about contraception, and feminists mocked his views on women. Mr. Mailer assumed an uncharacteristically plaintive tone when he told Time magazine he'd supplied the text for "Marilyn" (1973), a best-selling coffee-table book about Marilyn Monroe, because "I wanted to say to everyone that I know how to write about a woman."

No small part of Mr. Mailer's difficulties with feminism sprang from his almost-parodic obsession with masculinity and violence. His acknowledged literary idol was Ernest Hemingway. He gravitated to violent characters in his fiction: from the murderous Sergeant Croft in "The Naked and the Dead" to Stephen Rojak, who kills his wife in "An American Dream," to Gilmore in "The Executioner's Song." The moral crux of "The White Negro" is the murder of a 50-year-old candy store owner. "Mailer's waddle and crouch may look like a put-on but he means it when he butts heads," the critic Pauline Kael wrote in The New York Times Book Review of "Marilyn."

Violence figured in Mr. Mailer's life as well as art. He relished bullfighting and boxing - the latter as both participant and fan - and had a penchant for getting into fistfights. In 1960, he stabbed his second wife at a party with a penknife (she declined to press charges). Twenty-one years later, that incident had a gruesome echo. Mr. Mailer had befriended a convict, Jack Henry Abbott, and helped earn his release. Within weeks of getting out of prison, Abbott stabbed a man to death.

Mr. Mailer's fascination with violence had its incongruous aspect. His generosity toward other writers and frequent graciousness was well known in literary circles, as was his devotion to his children and amicable relations with all but one of his former wives. How to account for his tough-guy side? (Mr. Mailer published a novel in 1984 called "Tough Guys Don't Dance," and in 1987 directed a film version.) Perhaps it was an attempt to scrub away what in "Armies of the Night" he called "a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable - the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn."

The desire to write

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, N.J., on Jan. 31, 1923, the son of Isaac Barnett Mailer and Fanny (Schneider) Mailer. Mr. Mailer's father, a South African immigrant, was an accountant. His mother operated an employment agency. The family moved to Brooklyn when he was 4.

"Norman was not an ordinary child," his mother said at his 50th birthday party. "Other children always had that sameness about them, but not Norman. He was just different."

Mr. Mailer attended New York public high schools and wanted to go to MIT. Instead, he entered Harvard at 16 to study aeronautical engineering. He quickly turned his attention to writing. "All through December 1939 and January 1940 I was discovering modern American literature," he later wrote. "I had formed the desire to be a major writer." In 1941, he won Story Magazine's annual college writing contest.

The influence of the writers who meant the most to him at the time, John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell, is apparent in "The Naked and the Dead." Mr. Mailer was very conscious of wanting to write a "big" book about World War II. After being drafted, in 1944, he was relieved to find his unit assigned to the Pacific. He was convinced a great book was likelier to come out of that theater of operations rather than the more familiar Europe.

Mr. Mailer became increasingly interested in radical politics after the success of "The Naked and the Dead."

His next novel, "Barbary Shore" (1951), dealt extensively with left-wing ideology and was widely deemed a failure. "The Deer Park" (1955), which drew on Mr. Mailer's experiences as a fledgling screenwriter in the late '40s, offered a scabrous view of Hollywood and received mixed reviews.

Journalism began to attract Mr. Mailer's interest. He helped found The Village Voice, an alternative New York weekly, in 1955 and wrote a column for it.

By the 1980s, Mr. Mailer had acquired grand-old-man status - and was visibly enjoying it. He became a much-sought guest on the New York society circuit and served two years as president of the American branch of PEN, the international writers organization. In that capacity, he presided over the 1986 World PEN Congress, in New York. Once again, he became embroiled in controversy, for inviting Secretary of State George Shultz to address the meeting. It was a mark of just how much of an establishment figure Mr. Mailer had become that this, rather than some scandalous behavior, should be the occasion of outrage.

Yet even as he mellowed in his personal life and grew more august as a public figure, Mr. Mailer kept up many of his old literary compulsions and remained a man of the left. In his massive novel "Harlot's Ghost" (1991), he examined the power and influence of the CIA. He attacked George H.W. Bush and his handling of the Gulf War in "How the Wimp Won the War" (1991). His longstanding fascination with John F. Kennedy took a new turn in "Oswald's Tale" (1995), a nonfiction account of JFK's assassin.

In the 1990s, Mr. Mailer began living year-round in Provincetown, where he had begun spending summers in 1945. "There's something comic about the town," he said in a 2003 Globe interview. "You have the spot where the Pilgrims landed - and right next to it a giant motel. I've always loved that. There's the very spirit of America expressing itself!"

But Mr. Mailer had struggled with his health for months, undergoing lung surgery in October and spending five days undergoing tests in a Boston hospital in September.

By his various wives, Mr. Mailer had several children, all of whom he leaves: Susan, by Beatrice Silverman; Danielle and Elizabeth Anne, by Adele Morales; Kate, by Lady Jeanne Campbell; Michael Burks and Stephen McLeod by Beverly Bentley; Maggie Alexandra, by Carol Stevens; and John Buffalo, by Norris Church. He also leaves an adopted son, Matthew, by an earlier marriage of Church's, and 10 grandchildren.

J. Michael Lennon, the author's biographer and literary executor, said arrangements for a private service and burial for family members and close friends would be announced in the next week and a memorial service would be held in New York in the coming months.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.

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